SBU ‘treason’ probe and search at Yandex Ukraine to justify contentious ban?
If the Security Service’s search of the offices of Yandex Ukraine on May 29 was supposed to convince people that the sanctions imposed upon the company two weeks ago were justified, the aim was not achieved. Perhaps the SBU really does have hard evidence to warrant a criminal investigation into alleged ‘state treason’, but for the moment scepticism is high.
The fact that searches were being carried out in the Kyiv and Odesa Yandex offices was first reported by the company, and then confirmed by an SBU spokesperson. The SBU has now asserted that “law enforcement officers have established that the company’s management illegally gathered, accumulated and passed on Ukrainian citizens’ personal data to Russia.” The information included details about work, recreation; income, telephone; email and social network accounts, the SBU claims, and adds that law enforcement officers, soldiers taking part in the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Kremlin-backed militants and employees of the authorities were “among” such citizens.
This information, the SBU says, was passed to the Russian security service “to plan, organize and carry out intelligence, sabotage and information sabotage operations in our country to harm the sovereignty of Ukraine, its territorial integrity and inviolability”.
Server equipment and documentation have now been removed and will be sent to check for evidence of such “gathering, accumulating and passing to the Russian side of personal data of Ukrainian citizens”. The experts will also check “coordination of unlawful activities from the Russian Federation”.
All of this is part of a criminal investigation under Article 111 of the Criminal Code, i.e. state treason.
The article on treason applies to citizens, not to companies, but there is nothing to suggest that individuals have been informed of any suspicions against them. It is also not clear what precisely they would be accused of, or how the information allegedly passed on could help Russia threaten Ukrainian sovereignty.
Some specific information would help to allay the unease felt by the similarity to claims made by Russia’s security service to justify its arrests of Ukrainians on fabricated sabotage or terrorism charges in occupied Crimea.
Yandex has denied the SBU accusations and says that neither the Yandex management, nor employees in Ukraine have access to the personal data of users. It asserts that any data is depersonalized and anonymous, and that any information would only be revealed on presentation of a court order.
Oleksiy Komar, from the NGO ‘International Cyber Crime Center’, expressed his doubts about the searches in an interview to Hromadske Radio. Any search machine leaves data about its users, he says, adding that this means that any use we make of such resources could be interpreted in a way as to elicit similar accusations.
He believes that it is not clear how the National Security and Defence Council decision on sanctions and blocking certain sites is needed for national security. “It looks more like the searches on Monday were intended to justify the Security Council decision and President Petro Poroshenko’s decree”.
Other commentators have been equally negative. Media specialist Serhiy Rachynsky also explained the move as linked with the negative reaction from many to the decision to ban Russian social media VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki, as well as Yandex and Mail.ru. He calls it absurd to try to prosecute a business for ‘state treason’.
Olexander Olshansky, president of the Internet Invest Group holding, calls the decision to ban VK, Yandex and the others as “capitulation, not victory. The information war is a war for minds, and that means that you can’t win it through bans”.
Poroshenko’s May 15 decree banning Yandex, Mail.ru and two social networks, as well as imposing a much-expanded sanctions list came into force on May 17. It was heavily criticized by many Ukrainians, while welcomed but seen as far too long in coming by others. There was criticism also from international organizations and countries, and suggestions that the move constituted censorship.
Ukraine’s leaders and supporters of the move deny any such accusations. Nobody is trying to stop Ukrainians using social media or search machines, but there are strong reasons for Ukrainians to not use VKontakte and Odnoklassniki which are, for example, known to closely collaborate with Russia’s security service, the FSB.
The move has since led to a major migration to Facebook, but also to servers in other countries which make it possible to bypass the ban.
It has also aroused concern among human rights activists in Ukraine regarding the legality and justification of some of the steps taken. The sanctions, for example, are imposed on Ukrainian citizens, though a Ukrainian cannot be banned from the country and would probably have a good chance of successfully challenging other restrictions.
KHPG Director Yevhen Zakharov goes further and believes that the decision ‘confuses a scalpel and an axe”. He notes that many of the Ukrainian software companies appear to have been targeted simply because they are subsidiaries or representatives of Russian firms. This, he says, can surely not be viewed as sufficient grounds, and he suspects that there may be a commercial reason for the sanctions imposed.
He believes that restricting the right of people working in the public sector to social networks that could jeopardize national security and other state interests can be justified, but that restrictions on other people’s use of specific social media is an infringement of their right to a private life and freedom of expression.
Not everybody shares this absolute position, but doubts about the efficacy of the original bans and sanctions are widespread, as are suspicions about the motives.
The concerns are significantly heightened by the SBU’s new ‘state treason’ investigation and ostentatious search of Yandex Ukraine.